Construction jobs start early in the day. When my alarm goes off, it’s still fully dark outside. I grunt and turn it off resentfully, then slowly drag myself out of bed to face the morning.
It generally takes me a while to fully wake up. I tend to wander into the kitchen to get coffee going before I get dressed, so that the smell can slowly coax my brain out of hiding and I have time to make sure that I’ve actually done things like put my shirt on right-side out before I leave the house. This is usually a fine plan, but today my routine is brought to a screeching halt when I enter the kitchen to find Regina sitting at the table, hands wrapped around a mug. She’s wearing the same clothes from the night before, and aside from being in a different chair, is pretty much in the same position as I left her last night.
“Hi,” she says timidly. “I couldn’t sleep. I made coffee.”
I stare at her for several seconds while my brain grinds its gears. Ordinarily at this point, I would make coffee, but clearly that has already been done. So, what next?
“Sorry, I should put pants on,” I say eventually.
“It’s your house! You can walk around in boxers if you want to.”
“Yeah, but — I’m gonna put pants on. Back in a minute.”
I shuffle back to the bedroom in search of clothes. When I re-emerge, there’s a second cup of coffee sitting next to Regina in the kitchen. She gestures at it.
“Maybe I don’t drink coffee,” I say, just to be contrary.
“Well, on your first try at the morning, you didn’t remember pants, so I figured it was a safe bet,” she says, trying a smile. I grin and take the mug.
A bowl of cereal later, I check my phone and stand up. “Make yourself comfortable today. TV’s downstairs, food’s in here — and that’s pretty much it for what you need to know around the house. I’ve gotta get to the bus stop.”
“The bus stop? Don’t you have a car?”
“No, it — it’s a long story. But I don’t have one right now, is the short version.”
“I can give you a lift to work.”
“Yeah, you don’t mind?”
She shrugs. “I don’t really have a busy day planned out.”
Her car is an older model, but well maintained. It’s a bit dirty, but free of scrapes, rust or major dings. Inside, the back seat is absolutely packed with stuff — clothes, suitcases and assorted boxes are crammed in, pressing hungrily against the front seats as if eager to invade.
“Sorry about the mess,” Regina says. “Like I said, I’ve been living out of my car for a little bit. I didn’t really have anywhere else for all of my stuff.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say, moving aside a box in the footwell. “I appreciate the ride.”
The car starts up smoothly, but half of the warning lights on the dash stay lit. I look at Regina quizzically, and she shrugs again.
“I have no idea if the car’s actually malfunctioning, or if it’s just the warning lights,” she says. “It runs all right.”
“This is way better than waiting for the bus,” I say, which is true.
At the construction site, I clamber out of the car.
“What time do you get off of work?” Regina asks me.
“I can take the bus home; don’t worry about it.”
Regina gives me a dirty look. “What time do you get off of work?”
“Okay, I’ll see you then.”
She drives off as Christopher approaches. We walk off to punch in together.
“What, you don’t kiss her goodbye?” he asks me jokingly.
“She’s a friend staying with me, man. She was just doing me a favor.”
“Yeah, and she’s not going to be more than a friend if you don’t start giving her a kiss goodbye.”
“Dude, no. It’s complicated.”
“Kissing’s not that complicated.”
“Don’t you have heavy things to lift or something?”
Things I never thought I’d say: I really enjoy grunt-level construction work. It’s almost completely mindless, but because I’ve got to stay alert to avoid getting injured, it never gets boring. And there’s a real, tangible satisfaction to it. I get to see results of my efforts: the ground flattened, holes dug, concrete poured, materials set up. As a security guard, all I ever saw were the same empty halls in an endless loop. It feels good to effect change on the world around me. And we haven’t even gotten to putting the new building up yet. I’m really looking forward to that.
At lunchtime, I text Brian: “Do you like surprises?”
He writes back almost immediately. “No.”
“Sucks to be you, then. Come over tonight. Bring a couple of pizzas.”
“A couple? Is your new superpower eating?”
“No powers yet. Just come hang out.”
“Na na na na na na na na, Fatman!”
“What’s that make you then, Red Robin?”
I laugh into my sandwich, which is about as dignified as it sounds.
Regina shows up to get me shortly after I clock out. She’s wearing different clothes now, and seems to have taken advantage of the shower at the house. She looks a lot more relaxed and put together than the night before, or even this morning.
Christopher is walking back to his car, too, and waggles his eyebrows at me. I ignore him as I squeeze into Regina’s car. Different warning lights are on this time, but it stills seems to be running fine.
“I’m sorry, I’m sure I smell,” I say, but Regina waves the comment away. I continue, “Hey, so do you remember my friend Brian?”
She looks blank. “Not really?”
“He was with me the night we, um, met you outside your store. You –” tried to kill him with a lightning bolt “– might not remember him. Anyway, he’s coming over tonight.”
“Because I like him? He’s a good dude. I don’t know, I thought maybe it would make things less weird.”
She casts a sidelong glance at me. “Dan, are you messing with me?” Her tone is steady, but there’s something in it that hints of a quaver.
“What? No. How?”
“You said you could fix me, make me normal again. Now you’re inviting people over. Is this just a delaying tactic?”
“No! No, I can start on that as soon as we get home. Shoot, I can do it while Brian’s there, he doesn’t care. Seriously, he’s just a good guy to have around. I’m gonna be sitting there playing ‘I’m not touching you’ for who knows how long, and he’ll help keep a conversation going.”
Regina relaxes. “I’m sorry. I haven’t really had a great year, and then you got my hopes up, and suddenly I didn’t know if you were just screwing with me or something.”
“Why would I do that?”
She looks at me like I’m stupid. “Because I tried to kill you?”
“Well, okay, when you put it like that. But no, I’m not messing with you. I can fix this.”
Back at the house, I grab a beer, lead Regina downstairs to the couch, and turn on Netflix.
“Make yourself comfortable. If this is anything like demagnetizing the pots, it’s going to be a slow and boring process.”
“Is it going to hurt?”
“No? I don’t think so. The pots didn’t really say.”
I take a deep breath and concentrate. Sitting this close to her, I can feel her magnetic field. It’s like a subtle wind pushing at me, but constant and unvarying. I hold my hands up and focus on calm thoughts. The eternal ocean, the quiet rustling of a cornfield, the unwinking gaze of a starry night. It sounds like a super-cheesy self-help manual on stress reduction from the 70s, but it’s how manipulating the fields works for me.
I open my eyes when I hear the door slam upstairs. Brian calls out, “I’m in your house!”
He descends the stairs, pizzas in hand, and stops dead at the bottom.
“Okay, dude. Why is the woman who tried to kill you in your house? Is this a hostage situation? Keep in mind that I will throw a hot pizza at you if it’s necessary for me to get away. I’m not proud.”
I glance over at Regina, who’s got the kind of poker face on that means she’s determined not to cry. “Scale it way back, man. She’s all right.”
Brian looks dubious, but enters the room. “All right, lay it on me.”
“Once the nanomachines shut down, they stopped making her hate me. Same thing happened with Vince. She’s fine now. I’m demagnetizing her so she can function in modern society again.”
“Nanomachines?” asks Regina.
“Oh! Yeah, the powers you had — they came from nanomachinery. Same with mine.”
“Let’s pretend that any of that makes sense. How did I get nanomachinery?”
“That — I actually have no idea about that part.”
“Is it dangerous? Should I see a doctor?”
Brian chimes in. “Couldn’t hurt to take her to see Doc Simmons.”
I nod slowly. “Yeah, okay. Gimme a few days to get her safe enough to go into a hospital, and we can bring her by.”
“What kind of doctor is he?” Regina asks suspiciously.
“Medical. She’s been trying to figure out how the nanomachines work. If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to, as long as Brian here keeps his mouth shut. Once he tells the doc about you, she will get you into her lab to test you if she has to hunt you down like it’s some sort of urban safari.”
“Dude, she is not that bad,” protests Brian.
“Name one time she hasn’t gotten things the way she wants them.”
Brian eats a piece of pizza, and says nothing.
“That’s what I thought. Anyway — she’s great, and she would really love to meet you, and I promise she’d only think of you like fifty percent as a guinea pig. Maybe sixty percent.”
“Seventy-five,” mumbles Brian around a mouthful of cheese.
“That’s still a quarter human, which is better than you probably got treated working at the convenience store, right?”
Regina sighs. “I hope you’re kidding about the urban safari thing.”
“Mostly,” mumbles Brian.